Hutchinson’s heroics move Canada one step closer to World Cup

Canada's Atiba Hutchinson celebrates scoring his side's opening goal against El Salvador during a qualifying soccer match for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 at Cuscatlan stadium in San Salvador, El Salvador, Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

One step closer to Qatar.

The Canadian men’s national team may not be mathematically qualified for the World Cup yet, but having defeated El Salvador 2-0 on the road to round off this three-match window, Canada is potentially one game away from clinching its first World Cup berth in 36 years.

It also snapped decades-long winless runs in Honduras and El Salvador while clearing the final hurdle for this group: winning in Central America, where previous Canadian sides have traditionally struggled.

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Here are three thoughts from Wednesday’s victory.

Hutchinson bails out Canada

As inadvertent as it might’ve been, Atiba Hutchinson saved some of Canada’s blushes with one of the most bizarre goals you’ll ever watch.

“Didn’t know much of it to be honest,” Hutchinson said after the game. “From what I remember, Cyle [Larin] made a good effort at getting free of his man, staying on his feet, not going down to ground. Once he got into the clear, I just tried to make my run first post … he played in a good ball [and] I think I got a touch. It hit off the post and after that, I don’t know what happened.”

Credit Hutchinson and Larin – his Besiktas teammate — for the effort. Sometimes fortune favours the brave as well, which Canada has been during these 11 games.

That being said, it was an overall poor display from Canada. Yes, it was the third game in a week spanning three countries. It was a shorthanded squad in some areas during the first two matches, particularly in midfield due to Stephen Eustaquio’s positive COVID-19 result nearly two weeks ago.

However, six changes were made to the lineup, some of which were forced like Steven Vitoria, who was suspended. Most of those switches paid off, such as the return of Eustaquio, Hutchinson and even the centre-backs in Scott Kennedy and Doneil Henry (more on them later).

Apart from the goal, Hutchinson was as calm as ever. He completed 33 of his 36 passes and seven recoveries, most of which were executed further up the pitch.

It was a man-of-the-match type performance from the midfielder, who turns 39 next Tuesday.

“It shows that we can go up and play in these countries now where we have struggled a lot in these atmospheres,” said Hutchinson. “I think we have got that in the back of our minds that we can come up against these teams now in the Central American countries and put out good performances.

“Today it was not always the nicest football. I think we controlled the game quite early and then we kind of lost a little bit of the control but at that point, we did not give up any chances, really. Then we found a way to get back in the game.”

But Hutchinson is correct that it was not champagne football from Canada, apart from one clear-cut chance from Jonathan David, who rounded off the victory in second-half stoppage time. In fact, that play highlighted how the visitors could win the match.

There weren’t enough of those sequences for Canada. To El Salvador’s credit, they are an impressive side off the ball. In fact, the team’s passes per defensive action, a metric used to determine the intensity of a team’s pressing, is third among all teams in the Ocho at 7.87 entering Wednesday night. Only Mexico and the U.S. are ranked higher.

It’s particularly aggressive in midfield and defence, but as the above tweet highlights, El Salvador does concede a high number of shots and expected goals with a more aggressive approach. All the more reason why Canada needed to utilize those quick sequences on the flanks.

“You are coming into a real Concacaf environment tonight,” said Canada coach John Herdman. “We started strong, we fell into their chaos for a period of time and then we finished strong and that was the plan; start strong, finish strong. We knew we had the quality on the bench to come in and just finish the game off.”

Chalk it down to the wholesale changes, the slog of three games in a week or positive COVID-19 tests. Herdman confirmed that three players and four staff members contracted the virus before departing for El Salvador, which left the bench and technical staff a little thinner.

“We are all knackered,” Herdman admitted. “This has been a big window, a challenging window where we are happy that we picked up the points and are steps closer to Qatar, but this one was tricky.”

Millar disappoints

Liam Millar was among the six changes on Wednesday. Having shown flashes in a start versus Jamaica in October, when he should’ve scored the winner, plus other select substitute appearances where he provided a spark, it was an intriguing decision.

It was a chance to impress as a starter, to right the wrong of the Jamaica game and produce an unforgettable moment. It could’ve given Herdman a selection headache for the next window, provided Millar’s Basel form continued on an upward trajectory.

That did not occur, though. Millar was a non-factor, apart from his strong defensive work rate, which he’s exhibited since his Liverpool academy days. He completed 14 of 17 passes, but only one eventually led to a proper chance – David’s attempt on 19 minutes.

The 22-year-old did not complete a single dribble and consistently made the wrong decision on the ball. That could be down to a lack of minutes with this squad, especially one where half the lineup was switched.

Regardless, turnovers are a weakness for Millar, even amid a terrific debut season with Basel. In his statistical radar below, he plots as an effective goal-scorer, creator and dribbler, but at the expense of a high number of turnovers.

Millar likes to drift inside and dictate games, but that played right into El Salvador’s hands based on how well they were covering the left half-space, as noted in the team’s average positioning below.

That doesn’t close the door on Millar starting future games. If Canada moved the ball quicker, executed the right passes in transition and exploited the open gaps like they did during David’s first attempt of the match, Millar may have been a beneficiary.

Henry, Kennedy stand tall

With Vitoria suspended, coupled with Kamal Miller and Alistair Johnston still being in pre-season mode, Scott Kennedy checked back into the lineup after a solid display against Honduras last Thursday.

The bigger surprise was Doneil Henry starting next to Kennedy, who isn’t in form himself. His season ended in early December and had been on trial with Real Salt Lake, but was otherwise lacking match fitness.

That did not matter in the end. They won a combined six of nine aerial duels to go with 12 clearances, four interceptions, three tackles and eight recoveries. Their distribution was authoritative as well.

With Kennedy fit and in form after his injury, don’t count out him competing with Miller for the left-sided centre-back spot in March again.

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